Ukraine and Taiwan on Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard

The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (1997) is one of the major works of Zbigniew Brzezinski. He graduated with a PhD from Harvard University in 1953 and became Professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University. He was later the US National Security Advisor from 1977 to 1981, under the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

Brzezinski’s key message: regarding the landmass of Eurasia as the center of global power, Brzezinski sets out to formulate a Eurasian geostrategy for the United States. In particular, no Eurasian challenger should emerge that can dominate Eurasia and thus also challenge US global pre-eminence.

Ukraine crisis

Since the start of the Ukraine war, the tectonic movements in global geopolitics that former US president Donald Trump initiated with his economic crusade against China have acquired a dizzying speed. Yet, his successor President Joe Biden has managed to bring together nations in the developed world to impose strong sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, including by countries far from the conflict like Japan, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan. However, as the majority of IR-researchers admit, Ukraine is not in the core strategic interests of the US, whose strategic focus is definitely on Asia.

Europe’s total commitment to large-scale sanction policy on Russia, despite its deep dependence on Russian energy deliveries, is the main cause of that momentous tragedy Europe will face in this and next coming years. Viewed from Europe, the war in Ukraine and the consequences for the old continent are key to this game but a more global observation of the situation should lead us to a different conclusion, which Europe cannot ignore.

At the same time, China has not remained neutral in the face of the crisis but has deepened its anti-American rhetoric and coming even closer to Russia’s position. Thus, the growing differences between the Western narrative and that of China, let alone Russia, are clear signs that after the invasion of Ukraine, the world is more like “Grand Chessboard” than ever, where the West and the East are playing a major game in pursuit of global hegemony.

Despite the acute Ukrainian crisis and the massive American investments in that, Biden has given clear signals that his strategy in this game is not intended to focus on Europe in the medium term, but on Asia. The deal that the European Council has just reached by accepting Ukraine’s candidacy to join the European Union surely suits the US wish to refocus its foreign and security policy on Asia and leave Ukraine to the EU.   The recent performance of the EU, as a fully loyal servant and vassal of the US, will aggravate the destiny of the old continent rather than alleviate the humanitarian crisis Europe will face this fall. Now it seems that finally this game is passing the buck to the EU itself.

Recent examples of Asia’s importance to US foreign policy

The first example was Biden’s White House summit in May with leaders of some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The summit, which aimed to bring ASEAN countries’ so-far neutral positions on the conflict in Ukraine closer together, ended with more sorrow than glory, since none of them, with the exception of Singapore, moved a notch from their neutral positions. No doubt, China as their largest trading partner and major financier and implementer of major infrastructure projects in the region, has put some pressure on them.

The second example, Biden embarked soon after on his first official trip to Asia, focusing on two of America’s main allies in the region, South Korea and Japan. Given the limited success of the ASEAN summit, expectations for Biden’s trip were low, regarding for Biden’s proposal to create an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). While there was little detail on what this deal actually entailed and what economic benefits its members might enjoy, the US proposal received some cautious understanding but the final outcome remains to be seen.

Beyond the economic weight of the Asian region for the US, in the Biden administration’s bid for the IPEF there is one special feature: Taiwan, which was not invited. In any case, the fact that the Biden administration has not invited Taiwan to the IPEF should not be equated with irrelevance but rather with flexibility and caution on the part of the US, since it has preferred to deepen its bilateral economic relations with Taiwan, rather than regionalize them within the IPEF.

In short, Biden’s trip to Asia was an important sign of the region’s strategic importance to the US, despite the apparent shift toward Europe in response to the Ukraine war. The launch of the IPEF also makes clear that Asia is relevant both in US security policy and in the economic order.

China’s position

Indeed, China is the largest trading partner for a large number of countries, especially in Asia. The Ukraine war appears to have sent a clear message to Xi, namely that China’s economic might needs to be protected by making China a major security power. America’s strengthening of alliances in response to the Russian invasion, from an expanding North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to the Quad and the Indo-Pacific, has only accelerated China’s response.

In that sense, Xi’s announcement at the Boao Forum in April of the intention to create a Global Security Initiative (GSI) should not go unnoticed, as was made clear at the recent BRICS summit, where the security dossier gained unusual weight on the agenda. Similar procedures can be seen also in the framework of SCO and so-called RIC-format (Russia-Iran-China). So, it seems clear that Xi intends to create a counterweight to the US and its security allies.  

The US-China longstanding antagonism was manifested in angry quarrel between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Chinese colleague Wei Fenge at the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue regarding the South China Sea and Taiwan, in June 2022.

Chinese Lieutenant General Zhang Zhenzhong, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission went on calling Austin’s remarks on Taiwan as interference in China’s internal affairs, Zhang urged Washington to stop playing the “Taiwan card.” Zhang said that the United States often talks about the rule-based international order but it actually treats international rules and norms as a toy. Withdrawing from treaties, breaking away from agreements at its own will, waving the stick of unilateral sanctions against other countries and interfering in other countries’ internal affairs, the United States, in reality, tries to rule the world with its own domestic laws and gangster rules, said Zhang.

It is widely known that Beijing is closely studying the Russian special military operation in Ukraine and obviously Xi Jinping’s decision will depend on Donbass successes. Russia’s imminent victory will give China more confidence. Many Russian analysts suggest that Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart are coordinating actions on the “Taiwan issue.” Xi is reportedly issued an order to develop a plan for a “non-military operation” in Taiwan but by “military forces.”

Overall, Biden and Xi seem to be developing their strategies for global dominance. The big question is, which one will make it faster and better. Neither the US nor China has yet won the game but what is clear is that they will continue to move their pieces around the world chessboard and their Queen is Asia, not Europe.

Military drills of PLA

Recent exercises of Chinese Ground Forces increase Beijing’s readiness for military operations In Taiwan. In July, the Chinese PLA ground forces trained the rapid deployment of troops to operational areas. The mixed mechanized brigade of the Eastern Command of the PLA conducted an exercise to check the readiness of the compound to make a long-distance march. The troops successfully passed 1000 km in three days and trained various commands as loading of personnel and military equipment, delivery to the unloading station, marching to a conditional area of combat operations at night, carried out shooting and offensive actions etc.

In case of a military conflict, at the initial stage of a potential operation against Taiwan, the PLA would undertake a covert deployment of sabotage and reconnaissance groups to eliminate or capture the leadership of the island. Then, military equipment and personnel would be transferred to the area of hostilities. China has recently carried out a number of military exercises aimed at increasing of the combat readiness of its navy. Definitely, marine infantry units and trained formations of the land forces of the Eastern and Southern commands from the 72nd, 73rd, 74th PLA Armies will be deployed on the island.

US Senator visits Taiwan, Chinese military exercises in Taiwan waters

US Senator Rick Scott of Florida arrived in Taiwan on Thursday, July 7 afternoon for a two-day visit. Importantly, his visit marks no less than the seventh US senator to visit the democratic-run island this year alone. This after a group of six senators made an unannounced visit in April led by chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez, which Beijing also vehemently denounced.

Meanwhile a top China official who overseas cross-strait affairs on Thursday declared that “reunification” of the island remains at the center of national rejuvenation plans. In an article published in People’s Daily on Thursday, Liu Jieyi, head of the Taiwan Affairs Office, said: one focus of the strategy would be preventing and resolving major risks and hidden dangers in the Taiwan Strait, creating a “favorable environment” for national rejuvenation.

The concept of “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan has been pushed by Beijing for decades; however, Liu in his op-ed reiterated that China has never ruled out the option of using force.

Top Beijing officials have also recently said that US stoking “independence forces” remains a bright red line, which could result in war. But in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine over the last more than four months, the Biden administration has been wary that President Xi could borrow from Putin’s playbook and stage a ‘shock’ blitz of the island.

China again conducted major military exercises in waters around Taiwan, according to state media reports, which further decried US support to Taiwan separatist forces as “futile”.  China’s Defense Ministry was describing the drills as a warning aimed at the visit of a US senator. It said “China firmly opposes the visit by a US senator to Taiwan which severely damages the relationship of the two countries and two militaries, while it added that the drill near Taiwan is directed at US and Taiwan provocation.”

Taiwan has condemned the fresh PLA military drills as a “provocation” and has put its forces on high alert, as China sends fighter jets across the strait as part of its typical messaging. Taiwan’s air force in turn scrambled fighters to intercept and warn off the Chinese aircraft.

NATO for the Pacific

American, Republican hawks are predictably pushing for many irresponsible aggressive policies towards China. The latest example of this came last week in a speech by Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who called for $1 trillion military budget an explicit security commitment to Taiwan and the creation of what he calls a “NATO for the Pacific.”

A “NATO for the Pacific” seems to be a dangerous answer to a problem that doesn’t exist. China is not about to go on a spree of conquest across the Pacific and the Pacific states are not clamoring for more US militarism. China’s growing economic and diplomatic influence in the Pacific is not a threat that requires a military alliance in response. The fixation on military options is typical of the politicians in Washington that treat the threat as military and use of force as the only available tools.

US Proxy Wars, with Russia and with China

The Ukraine war is a proxy war between the US and Russia. Now that the US House of Representatives has passed a massive $40 billion in aid for Ukraine, more observers are acknowledging that this is a proxy war. As dangerous as it is to have one proxy war between two nuclear superpowers, there’s a possibility we may end up with a second one, between the US and China.

In the Big Picture: China is America’s main geopolitical competitor. Russia may have the largest nuclear arsenal in the world and its economy may be larger and more resilient than the West assumed, when levying their sanctions on it but Russia is not America’s main geopolitical competitor. That title clearly belongs to China, which has ten times Russia’s GDP and ten times its population.

The United States State Department has been poking “the Russian bear” over Ukraine and now “the Chinese dragon” over Taiwan. The US managed to get the proxy war with Russia and now they want the similar proxy war with China. Many experts have described Taiwan as being the “Ukraine of the Pacific”.

Biden himself has pledged that Taiwan can “count on America’s support” were an invasion to break out at any time. These supportive words were backed up with a $750 million deal to provide a Howitzer military system to Taiwan in August 2021, a $100 million deal to supply and upgrade Taiwan’s patriot missile systems on February 8, 2022 and another $95 million missile deal on April 6, 2022. 

After the second of these three deals, the Taiwanese foreign ministry sounded like it was trying to out-Zelensky saying:

“In the face of China’s continued military expansion and provocative actions, our country will maintain its national security with a solid defense and continue to deepen the close security partnership between Taiwan and the United States.”

China’s concerns over the vast expansion of US efforts to turn Taiwan into a Pacific Ukraine seem to be very real.